With each January comes law firm announcements of partner promotions, usually featuring pictures of all the new partners smiling proudly. Each year, I am struck by how the faces are mostly of men, with one or two women represented among the larger group. These lopsided announcements are par for the course according to the findings in Law 360’s 2019 Glass Ceiling Report, which surveys the progress of women in the legal profession. This year’s sixth annual report finds that women remain woefully unrepresented in the field, especially at the higher echelons. The report finds that although women make up more than half of law school students, women represent just 36.3 percent of attorneys at firms, and of those, 45.5 percent are non-partners. Among partners, women represent only 24.5 percent of the group and account for just 21.5 percent of the equity partners.
For women of color, the gap is even more pronounced. Although women of color make up almost one-fifth of law students, Law360s report indicates they represent just 8.5 percent of private practice attorneys and 3 percent of equity partners—numbers that are essentially the same as last year.
These statistics are even more troubling when considering the slow pace of progress toward gender parity. As the report documents, there have been only incremental improvements in these numbers over the past six years. In fact, since 2013, female partnership ranks have grown by only 3.6 percentage points.
What accounts for this gap? The report includes some theories, including evidence that the low numbers of women partners seems to be in part attributable to women leaving firms for alternative careers, even after they have been promoted. As the report notes, the parity problem is not with the pipeline, as women students made up some 40 percent of law students for the past 30 years and more than 50 percent of law students since 2016. Thus, part of the problem lies with promotion and retention.
Other factors hindering gender parity include firm structural issues. Notably, the measures of performance in most firms-hours billed and revenue generated is based on the ability to work long hours, which generally skews towards men. This issue is exacerbated by motherhood, a time when women often need more flexibility or can’t travel as freely as men or women without children.
New to this year’s report is an accompanying podcast that discusses the issues and what firms can do to retain and promote female talent and decrease the parity gap. The podcast includes an interview with trailblazer Candace Beinecke, of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, who was the first female head of a major New York firm. Beinecke recommends that women find an area of the law they love and become the “go to” expert in that area. She also states that women still need to be more aggressive in the hiring process and in asking for compensation.
The advice that women still need to “lean in” more was something that was raised several times in a recent leadership seminar at Southeastern Women in Financial Securities’s spring symposium. Panelist Jonathan Santelli, Raymond James’ general counsel, explained that women should be more assertive about asking for promotions and challenging projects and should be “raising their hands” more often, a sentiment that was echoed among the panel of both women and men law firm managing partners.
Other suggestions included in Law 360’s report and podcast were:
- Firm leadership should make diversity and parity a strategic goal and incorporate it all their decision making. Similarly, firms should analyze their work teams, leadership teams, and chairs with an eye towards diversity.
- Firm leadership needs to better calculate an employee’s value to a firm with an emphasis based on efficiency and quality rather than just numbers of hours billed.
- More mentoring and advocates for women.
- More programs to support mothers, such as flexible schedules, more options for returning to a firm after a prolonged absence, and more support for new parents.
- In-house counsel should be demanding diverse teams.
- More women in positions of leadership, both as an example for younger women and because statistics reveal that firms where women are managers have overall higher numbers of women partners.
There were some bright spots noted in the report. Among those highlights are that firms are openly discussing these issues and making concerted efforts to improve opportunities for women. In addition, the numbers of women advancing at in-house positions has improved with women filling 37 percent of chief legal officer positions. Academia has also shown advances for women attorneys with 35 percent of women now serving as law school deans. Hopefully, these advances will continue and snowball so that future partner announcements reflect the diversity and talent of women in the profession.
Alise J. Henry is of councsel at Bressler, Amery & Ross PC in Miami, Florida.